Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Pushing Back on Misuse of the word Accident

I was reminded in an email thread discussing Jan Heine's recent crash in Japan about the frequently inappropriate use of the word "accident" to describe most crashes where motor vehicles hit cyclists and pedestrians (and probably fixed objects and other motor vehicles). Lynne Cooney wrote:
Again, this was not an accident, it was a negligent driver.  Continuing to call these crashes "accidents" implies that they are unavoidable.
Here's the beginning of the entry for "accident" on Wikipedia (emphasis mine):
An accident is an undesirable incidental and unplanned event that could have been prevented had circumstances leading up to the accident been recognized, and acted upon, prior to its occurrence. Most scientists who study unintentional injury avoid using the term "accident" and focus on factors that increase risk of severe injury and that reduce injury incidence and severity (Robertson, 2015).
Lynne also provided me a link to a recent opinion piece in Wired, which I think is worthwhile reading.

The opportunity exists for a small amount of advocacy.  Anytime you see the word "accident" incorrectly used in a report about a motor vehicle crash, here are a few things you can do to draw attention to the incorrect usage, yet not take much of your time:

  • If the website provides for comments, add a comment to the article.
  • If contact information for the author is available, tweet, post, or send an email.
  • If there is a public editor or ombudsman (for instance, the NY Times has a public editor), send that person an email.

Cook up a short, polite form letter (extremely short if you are a Twitter-holic) and save it on your computer. Whenever you see the word "accident" used inappropriately to describe crashes involving motor vehicles, paste your form letter into your email/tweet/comment. On social media, include the hashtag #CrashNotAccident. Maybe reporters and news outlets will start to get the message and change their usage.

Do you already do this? Let me know in the comments. If you have a boilerplate response you use, feel free to include that as well.

Monday, November 09, 2015


I think there is a noise everybody makes without thinking when their lower level neural circuits determine that they are suddenly at great risk of injury. For me, it's "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!". Not two or four "whoas," three. It's unconscious, erupting before you even form the thought that you are in trouble. I guess that comes from the fast circuits Daniel Kahneman wrote about in Thinking Fast and Slow. If I am not in as much immediate danger, my higher cortical functions take over, resulting in a well-formed sentence which often includes one or two four-letter words.

Today, I got doored. It happened so quickly I didn't even have time to utter my fast phrase. As I was falling I ever-so-briefly formed an image of laying down, as I usually sleep on my left side, which was the side about to contact the pavement. Very weird. I'll be fine, though now about nine hours after the incident, I do have some aches and pains. I might well be off the bike for a couple days. My bike sustained a few scuffs as well - including to my Brooks Pro :-( - but the big parts all seem fine. I guess there is an advantage (for the bike) that the rider is a skosh wider than the bike. I think I was pretty lucky, all things considered.

The after-incident was kind of weird as well. Obviously, the driver finished getting out of her car, and asked if I was okay. There was also a guy over on the sidewalk who kept asking, "Are you okay?" Sort of like Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory and his "knock-knock-knock, Penny?" bit, only this guy wasn't going to stop asking if I was okay until I said something. So, after about his eighth repetition, I said something just to shut him up. I think he was in an infinite loop. After getting up, I examined my bike, concluded everything looked fine, certainly well enough to ride home, then exchanged phone numbers with the driver, so I could contact her later if I had problems.

The final icing on the cake was applied as I was getting back on my bike. The guy who just a moment before was repetitiously concerned that I was okay, started giving me a hard time for not chatting up the driver. She was kind of a hottie. Honestly, that was the last thing on my mind. I am a happily married man, and have been for 34 years. Hotties haven't been on the menu (not even the menu of my impossible dreams) for a great long while.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Don't Expect Perfection

Chicago has has an excellent history of bike-friendly mayors. Richard M. Daley was responsible for much of our cycling infrastructure. His successor, Rahm Emanuel has built aggressively on Mayor Daley's legacy. In fact, Richard J. Daley was responsible for designating the Lakefront Trail as a bike path, in 1963!

LFT is one of the most heavily trafficked multi-use paths around. Strava has a nice little interactive heatmap which you can use to identify heavily used and timed routes. As you can see, LFT is well used both by cyclists:

and runners:

The work to straighten out LFT at Fullerton Avenue is about complete. Yesterday, I stopped at the construction site entrance and spoke with Catrina, the traffic coordinator. She said the upgraded path should be open soon.

We got into a short discussion, during which she asked, "are you one of those speeders?" I knew what she meant by the term, and didn't feel like it necessarily fit me. I explained, rather vaguely, that I do ride fast when the coast is clear, and waved my hand generally toward the north. She said she has seen a number of accidents involving bikes at that location. The detour is a bit problematic, involving a chicane around the Theater on the Lake, narrowing of the path, and obstruction of any remaining sight lines by the green fabric on the chain link fence used to block prying eyes from the construction site.

Feeling like I hadn't explained myself very well, I started thinking about why me riding fast "up north" wasn't the same as the Lakefront Lances bombing through the detour around the construction zone. I've written about right-of-way before. I try to ride by that rule: never steal someone else's right-of-way. Still, that one rule doesn't totally explain how I try to ride, or how I think others should ride (or drive). I don't think it explains all the collisions Catrina has seen either.

I was missing something. Yesterday, while mulling over the conversation, it came to me: don't expect perfection. Simply put, when you ride too fast for conditions, you are expecting perfection from yourself and from others around you. If you buzz through congestion on the trail at 20mph, you leave no margin for error. You can't afford to make a mistake. Nor can the runner who has just reached her turn-around point and wants to head home and get ready for work. Nor can the bike mechanic who replaced your brake cables last week. Nor can the squirrel off the path being chased by the dog running off-leash. Nor, for that matter, can the dog. You implicitly expect perfection in every one of these small interactions.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I don't enjoy group rides as much as I might. I like going faster than I normally would riding solo, and I like the common purpose and camaraderie of the people I ride with. I am a bit skeptical of my own expertise, which makes me nervous riding in a pace line. In addition, I don't want my riding buddies to have to pay for the mistakes I learn as I gain proficiency.

So, my informal cycling rule book now has two simple rules:
  • Don't steal the right-of-way.
  • Don't expect perfection.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Daylight, Daylight, Where For Art Thou?

So, the clocks fell back again last night. At least here in the US of A. I'm sure there are plenty of other posts on the subject (here's one which caught my eye), but I will add one more.

I have a hard enough time sleeping. I don't need extra, artificial, impediments to my already faulty circadian rhythms. This morning, after the overnight time change, I wound up getting up shortly after 4am (5 o'clock would have been bad enough). On a Sunday, for chrissakes!

Starting tomorrow, I can look forward to several months where I ride my bike to and from work in pretty much complete darkness. While nighttime riding is fun on occasion, I'm sure my risk of injury roughly doubles when I go from riding one way in darkness to two. And it probably adds a little bit to my lovely wife's stress to know I'm out there pedaling in darkness. Note to other cycling commuters: make sure your lights are fully charged before heading off to work tomorrow morning.

I work at a trading firm which (like almost all others) trades markets worldwide. The change from Daylight to Standard time, especially now that Europe and the US don't change at the same time, is annoying, at best. Given the differing change dates here and on the continent, we now have four points where problems can arise, two in the spring, two in the fall. To try and remain in sync with American traders, some overseas exchanges actually change their open and close times so we don't see a change relative to our clock! I'm sure there are other industries where the Spring and Fall clock rituals are more problematic (and attempts at adaptation even more absurd).

Permanent DST sounds like an excellent idea to me. Can we please stop messing with the clocks?

Friday, October 30, 2015

The God of Salt Can be an Angry God

I ride an old Trek set up as a fixed gear much of the time, and it's pretty much my full-time winter ride.  (I have a couple other bikes I don't really mind sacrificing to the God of Salt, but I don't ride them much.) The pedals on the Trek have been complaining recently (creaking, mostly), so I figured it was time to service them.

I had another set of pedals ready to install, so this morning I went to do the swap.  Oops.  Not really turning.  I managed to get the drive side pedal off, and noticed some corrosion on the pedal threads.  Good old bimetallic electrochemistry at work, aided and abetted by the God of Salt.  On the non-drive side, I could barely get the pedal to budge.  I shot it with a bit of Liquid Wrench, greased the drive side pedal, reinstalled it, then rode to work.

On the NDS, the shoulder that normally butts up against the crank arm is now moved back just a skosh from the face of the crank arm.  Under normal circumstances, much (most? all?) of the force is transmitted between the pedal and the crank through that interface.  I hope the Liquid Wrench and easy pedaling will free up the threads a bit so I can remove the pedal this evening without applying heat.  Still, you should take advantage of my mistake (I should have been checking all steel/aluminum interfaces periodically, especially on a bike that sees winter's road salt - shame on me), and check your pedals, seatpost, and stem before they become permanent fixtures on your bike.

Monday, October 19, 2015


My oldest cousin Phyllis passed away recently. Naturally, I've been thinking a lot about her in the time since. Just as naturally (if you know me), it's taken me awhile to collect my thoughts and decide to put them down. I started writing this a couple days ago, on my way to the memorial service, somewhere between Portland and Seattle, sipping my coffee, trying to organize a few thoughts in a coherent way.

Phyllis has always been special to me, not because we grew up together or kept in very close touch during our adult lives, but because she stepped into my life in a significant way when I needed it most. My father died suddenly just after I graduated from high school. Though it wasn't always so, the Montanaro clan was always geographically dispersed during my lifetime. My dad and I lived in the Bay Area. My Grandma and various aunts and uncles came out west for the funeral from Chicago, Connecticut, and Miami. Phyllis came down from her home near Seattle.

After the funeral, most everyone returned to their lives far away, but Phyllis stayed. In talking with my cousins Pat and Judy, and my cousin-in-law Bob, I more-or-less confirmed my 45-year memories that she stayed for a couple weeks, went home at some point, then returned. I'm not sure how long she was there in total, but it was a very significant commitment of her time, and must have placed a burden on Bob and their children as well.

There was a lot to do, essentially none of which I remember any longer, much of it probably mundane stuff which just had to get done. I was a seventeen year-old kid, about to head off to college in the fall. I'm sure I hadn't any idea what to do. But Phyllis certainly did. You see, her dad, my Uncle Jim, died suddenly when she was seventeen. While the circumstances were much different, there was still that strong similarity, losing your father at a time when you can least afford it, just as you're about to head out into the world on your own, and like it or not, need advice and sometimes a nudge in the right direction. I think she, better than anyone else, understood my situation, and stepped in to help.

During the past couple days, visiting with a good chunk of my extended Montanaro family for the first time in a long while, I heard phrases like "love and strength" and "second mom" used repeatedly to describe Phyllis. I think she was the embodiment of those concepts, and I will always be grateful for her presence in my life.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Bicycle Lighting

Over the last several years, cycling has witnessed a sort of lighting arms race, with brightness now measured in hundreds of lumens. I'm sure that by now some company has broken the kilolumen barrier. It's gotten to the point where many morning Freds ride around with lights on their helmets whose brightness rivals Hollywood premiere search lights. If several Freds are riding in a pack, it can look pretty much like this image from the 1940 premiere of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator.

To make matters worse, riders wearing these photonic cannons think nothing of looking at other people passing by, briefly searing their retinas and rendering them momentarily blind. This is far from a good thing when you are riding on a multi-use path with other cyclists, joggers, pedestrians and the occasional dog, who have suddenly become invisible to you.

These multi-hundred dollar portable searchlights have their uses off-road, where there is little other natural light to light the way. They really have little, if any, use on bike paths or city streets. I can understand the desire to see and be seen, but I doubt riders with such headlamps are increasing their safety on surface streets when they blind drivers in two-ton metal cages either.